When voters go to the polls today, they’ll lend their voices to some of the most important elected offices in Tarrant County.
Their choices will decide whether Tarrant County is a political battleground as political observers have described it or if it continues to be the most populous Republican county in Texas.
The heated back and forth between candidates vying for county judge and district attorney shows Joanne Green, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, how national politics have crept into more local offices.
“We’ve been spared some of that (polarization) here, because some of the elections aren’t really as competitive as we’ve seen in other localities,” Green said. “But it could be more reflective of broader trends of the polarization we’re seeing in American politics.”
The race for Tarrant County judge, the top elected position in the County, is open after current officeholder Republican Glen Whitley decided not to seek re-election. His successor will either be Republican Tim O’Hare or Democrat Deborah Peoples.
Regardless of who voters pick, both candidates are seen as more partisan. Peoples was the chair of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, while O’Hare was the chair of the Tarrant County Republican Party.
Whitley did not endorse in the race after his pick for successor, former Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price, lost the GOP primary for county judge. Whitley stressed the need for bipartisanship during his final State of the County address.
“What I pray for is that what we’re seeing in the campaigns may not be what we see in actuality after the election,” Whitley told reporters Friday.
This election could be the beginning of a new trend where Tarrant County elections become more competitive, Green said.
“There was a competitive primary and a competitive general election, so it’s not that surprising that more money than usual is being spent,” Green said.
Since they launched their campaigns, O’Hare raised nearly $2.3 million, while Peoples raised $429,874, according to the latest Tarrant County campaign finance reports.
The county judge is basically the mayor of the county, leading the Commissioners Court and acting as chief executive of the county government. The position helps make policy decisions, such as deciding how the county will spend the remaining $226.3 million received from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act.
“(The county judge) has influence in ways that many people don’t really appreciate,” Green said. “A lot of people don’t fully understand the nature of the job, and because of that they sometimes mistakenly think that they’re like a traditional judge.”
The other key position on the ballot is the Tarrant County district attorney, which is the criminal attorney prosecuting misdemeanor and felony offenses. Republican Phil Sorrells and Democrat Tiffany Burks are vying to replace current District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who decided not to seek a third term.
Some candidates had hoped to see voter turnout as high as the 2020 or 2018 elections, but the county had the lowest early voting turnout since the 2014 midterm election.
Green said that there are numerous reasons the county is seeing lower turnout, from Republican voters’ concerns about early voting integrity to Democratic voters being less enthusiastic about voting.
Green doesn’t know if Democrats will be able to overcome current trends that favor the Republican Party this election, such as the state of the economy and a Democratic president. Historically, the party that does not control the White House loses control of at least one chamber of the U.S. Congress.
Both sides have engaged in negative campaigning across the races. That tactic can work, but it could have some pitfalls, the TCU political scientist said.
“Maybe Tarrant County voters are not responding to some of the negativity because we’re not all that accustomed to it locally,” Green said. “There is evidence that suggests that negative campaigning can depress turnout.”
Juan Salinas II is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.